A familiar sight took the court to start the second quarter of Sunday's NBA All-Star Game.
When the West's five-man unit walked onto the floor, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant comprised three-fifths of the lineup.
Just like old times.
It was the first time the former Thunder trio shared the court as teammates since the blockbuster October trade that sent Harden to Houston. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the well-known, three-headed monster scored the first nine points of the period for the West All-Stars.
“We're back together and it seems like we never left each other,” Harden said over the weekend. “We're brothers. Simple as that. We're always going to be brothers.”
But what will become of the Thunder?
Wednesday night, in its first game out of the All-Star break, the Thunder will face Harden and the Rockets for the third and final time this season. It's the 54th game of the season for OKC, but the jury is still out on whether the Thunder is better or worse without Harden. Like it or not, that's what the success of this season ultimately will be determined by, and we're still a ways away from arriving at the place in which we'll learn the definitive answer.
“The value of James Harden doesn't show in the regular season,” said TNT analyst Kenny Smith. “It's only going to show in the playoffs.”
That could be the biggest reason why the Thunder, strictly from a statistical standpoint, is better this year than it was a year ago.
Oklahoma City is scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions, which leads the league and is 2.6 points on average more than last year's ultraefficient pace. The Thunder also has led the league in team scoring for much of the year, but its 106 points per game currently trails the Rockets by one-tenth of a point for tops in the league.
At 39-14, the Thunder's .736 winning percentage projects to eclipse last year's .712 mark, which stands as an Oklahoma City-era record for won-loss percentage.
More frequently than not, there have been nights like Feb. 8, when the Thunder scored a season-high 127 points behind a balanced team attack, that lead you to think this year's success is no fluke. But there have been times like last Thursday, when OKC's offense went stagnant against Miami and made it hard to believe the Thunder can assemble another deep playoff run without Harden.
“We're different, but I think we're just as good,” said Durant. “James, don't get me wrong, is a phenomenal player. But we lost him and we got back Kevin Martin, who's a really good player as well.”
Martin ranks third on the Thunder in scoring with a 15-point average. That's just 1.8 points shy of Harden's scoring output last season. Martin, however, averages 1.8 fewer rebounds, again an occasional sore spot for OKC, and 2.4 fewer assists. Harden's ability to generate scoring for himself and others is what the Thunder misses most.
“Will Westbrook be that guy?” Smith asked. “Because (Harden) was the playmaker.”
What we know at this point is the Thunder's effectiveness has endured without Harden through the team evolving into more of an equal-opportunity offense. Last year, with each of its stars being heavily reliant on having the ball in their hands to be most successful, the Thunder ranked last in assists at 18.5 per game. This year, the Thunder's 21.9-assist rate ranks 14th.
It's a reversal that's been led by the remaining two All-Stars. Durant is averaging a career-high 4.4 assists, while Westbrook's 8.1 assists per game are only a shade shy of his career high.
“I didn't think that with a player leaving I'd have to take a bigger role on,” Durant said. “But I accepted it. Coach wants me to handle the ball more, he wants me to rebound more, be more of a leader, and I think I'm doing those things right now. Hopefully I continue.”
There is nothing Durant can do to improve the Thunder's bench scoring, which has seen a severe drop off in Harden's absence. Last year, the Thunder's bench ranked seventh with a 5.1-points scoring differential. This year, the Thunder's bench ranks 17th and has been outscored by 1.1 points on average.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks in mid-November began playing Durant at the start of the second quarter in an attempt to buoy the bench. Durant has helped but hasn't kept the Thunder completely out of the woods in those stretches.
That's why a spread-out attack has been vital. The Thunder has been at its best when multiple players get involved and become threats to score, as evidence by the team's 17-1 record when five players score at least 10 points.
To that end, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka both have stepped up in the absence of Harden and contributed career highs in scoring.
For now, it's helped cushion the blow of the loss of the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. The Thunder is banking on that balance doing the same in the playoffs.
“We know that in order to win a championship you can't win with just one or two guys,” Durant said, before pausing. “Or three.
“It has to be a whole group effort.”
Thunder at Rockets
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Toyota Center, Houston
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37/HD 722, DirecTV 679, Dish 445, U-Verse 754/HD 1754)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM
Three things to know
* This is the third and final meeting between the Thunder and Rockets. Oklahoma City won the first two games by an average margin of 26 points.
* Houston currently is the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
* The Thunder went 8-6 in the 14 games prior to the All-Star break.